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One Giant Leap for an iPhone

By Rob Walch MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jun 29, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Sadly it is now impossible to do a review of the iPhone 4 (iP4) without mentioning the antenna and the reported issues when you hold the iP4 -- which is a shame because there is so much more to the iP4 than the antenna.

One Giant Leap for an iPhone

Apple's iPhone 4
Apple's iPhone 4

That is not to make light of the potential issue -- I just want to point out there is much, much more to the iP4. To start, there is the Retina Display, which is "clearly" the best screen on any smartphone, period. Then there is the improved 5 MP camera with a flash on the back, and the new front-facing camera. There is the Facetime app, there is a faster processor, double the RAM of the 3GS and better battery life.

But again, it is sadly the Antenna that is getting all of the attention right now.

Signal Issues

Per the antenna issue, let's get this out there up front: For those not in the know, there are many videos showing people touching the lower left side of the iP4. The number of bars on the upper left corner of the screen drops like a rock, and in some cases the phone looses all reception. I need to say this does not appear to be the case with all iP4s. Personally I have not seen this issue with my phone -- and I have a video up at showing me using it with my left hand and not being able to replicate the issue.

Apple has responded and said it is a software issue in iOS 4 and not a hardware issue in the iP4. Clearly this is something Apple will need to address -- strongly and swiftly. Some have even started saying the iP4 has a hex on it -- given the issue of the lost iP4/Gizmodo and now this. The good news is if you have not already purchased an iP4, chances are you will not be able to get one until Apple does address the issue. So for you, the rest of this article is sans reference to the antenna issue and assumes that it is something Apple can address with a software update.

Retina Display

The most stunning upgrade from the 3GS to the iP4 is the new Retina Display, which uses the same IPS technology that is in the iPad. The IPS tech offers a very wide viewing angle range. However with the iP4 display, Apple one-upped the iPad and I guess four-upped the 3GS with the Retina Display, which offers four times the number of pixels as the 3GS.

Holding the 3GS next to the iP4, it is as clear as night and day how much better the iP4 display is. It is like you are looking at something that was printed by a 300+ dpi laser printer. It is without a doubt the best display of any smartphone on the market and is in my opinion much better than the OLED screens.

A big issue with OLED screens is that when you walk out in the sunlight they are completely unreadable. The iP4's Retina Display is still very readable in direct mid-day sun -- even in Las Vegas. Watching a movie on the new display is simply beautiful, and even in heavy action scenes, there are none of the digital artifacts you are used to seeing with LCD screens.

Camera Quality

With the iP4, Apple not only upgraded the back camera from 3 megapixels to 5, but it also finally added a flash, which works for photos and as a light for video recording.

However, Apple did not stop there; it also added the long sought-after (at least by me) front-facing camera. The camera app for the iP4 switches easily between the front and back camera for both still images and video. The picture quality for the back camera is very good when compared to a stand-alone digital camera and as good if not better than any other smartphone on the market.

Yes there are other smart phones with 8 mega pixel camera, but tests show those pictures are no better than what you get with the iP4 due to sensors used. There are many side-by-side comparisons of iP4 pictures vs. digital cameras / other smartphones where the iP4 comes out on top or just as good as the other devices. I feel I can now finally retire my Casio 5 megapixel stand-alone camera, something I did not even remotely consider with my 3GS.

The New Facetime

One of the great new features with the iPhone 4 is Facetime. This feature takes advantage of the front-facing camera and allows you to do video chats. There are two caveats however: 1) You must have a WiFi connection; and 2) the other person needs to have an iPhone 4 as well, at least for now (Apple stated they will make the tech an open standard for all to use).

Apple realized that people who just got an iPhone 4 might not have anyone to test out the Facetime feature with, so they setup a number for you to call in and try it out. 1-888-FACETIME. I gave this a call from the LasVegas AirPort on Sunday morning and they answered quickly within a minute. Facetime worked great! The video was really clear of the person on the other end. One nice touch: While doing the Facetime chat, the smaller window, which shows either you or what you back camera is seeing, was easy to move around. Just touch and move it around if it is in the way of what you wanted to see.

While in Facetime you can, with one tap, switch what the person on the other end sees -- from the front camera to the back camera. As such, there will be many uses of Facetime Apple never imagined or that at least they would not admit to, some likely involving posts on Craigslist. But to me the most compelling one is still per the Apple commercials, and that is connecting via video with loved ones.

Benchmark Tests: iPhone 4 vs. 3GS

Some quick benchmark tests for the iP4 vs. the 3GS showed somewhat surprising results.

The iP4 actually takes longer to boot up from a cold start than the 3GS. The 3GS starts up in about 37.5 seconds vs. 43.4 seconds for the iPhone 4. Both devices were running iOS 4. I am sure the longer boot-up times have to do with the additional code to support Facetime -- but still, I would have expected with the 1Ghz A4 processor that the iP4's boot time would have been closer to 30 seconds, considering the iPad using the same processor boots up in 20 seconds (granted the iPad is booting up in iOS 3.2 not iOS 4).

Seeing how fast verious apps start up can make for a good real-world test of processor speed. I looked at the load times for three different apps and took the average load times for each app on the iP4 and the 3GS. The three apps were "Blowfish," "Crazy Hamster" and "Pocket Ants," all are games, and each takes some time to load. Below are the results of those tests.

App Avg. Time (seconds) on 3GS Avg. Time (seconds) on iP4
"Blowfish" 6.4 5.6
"Crazy Hamster" 11.7 10.4
"Pocket Ants" 8.4 7.5

As expected, the iP4 was faster than the 3GS, but not quite as fast as you would expect when you consider how much faster the processor is. However, these tests only tell part of the story, as the feel of the iP4 seems to be smoother than the 3GS, which already felt fast. The iP4 feels equivalent to the iPad in the use of the interface.

The Battery's True Story

While the iP4 is significantly thinner than the 3GS, Apple somehow still managed to put in a bigger battery. Apple claims the iP4 will give you 10 hours of video playback, same as they said for the iPad -- which I actually tested out to 13.5 hours. So Apple tends to be conservative with their battery claims.

As an example of real-world use, Sunday I unplugged my iPhone from the charger at 7:00 AM. I had four phone calls with the wife, did the Facetime chat with Apple, received a few other calls for about a total of 52 minutes of calls. I also listened to seven episodes of Dave's Lounge Podcast (A great music podcast I highly recommend you check out) for a total of about 4 hours of audio playback. Additionally I surfed the Web and checked emails, took some pictures and sent those pictures via email. At 3:03 PM (8 hours later),my phone was showing 78 percent battery life.

Sure, other smartphones have removable batteries -- but that is because they NEED them to be removable. But even if you are super-user and need better battery life, there will be many third-party cases that have batteries built in -- no better place to store the extra battery than right in the case. Interestingly enough, if you have the original Mophie Juice Pack for the original iPhone, the iP4 fits in it perfectly.

There are four versions of the iP4. Black with 16 GB or 32 GB of storage or White with 16 GB or 32 GB of storage. Pricing in the U.S. is $199 / $299 for the 16 GB / 32 GB versions, respectively (based on signing a two-year contract with the Devil AT&T). One caveat is the white versions are not currently available and will likely not be available until late July. Apple stated they were have manufacturing issues with the white iPhone -- because you know Apple has never made a white device before. (Yes, I am a little bitter, I wanted the White one.)

The iP4 is a big step up from the 3GS -- which was really just a small step up from the 3G, which was a small step from the original iPhone. If you are eligible for an upgrade, I would highly recommend you do so now. If you are not currently an iPhone owner, then there has never been a better time to drink the Kool-Aid and get one. You might also want to get a case -- or at least try not to let the antenna touch your skin. Just sayin'.

Rob Walch is host of the Today in iOS podcast.

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Jeff Bezos of Amazon
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Sundar Pichai of Google
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All of them are equally trustworthy to some extent.
None of them are trustworthy whatsoever.